Pro-lifers protest Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards in Cedar Rapids, May 20 [Photo by Sam Scheidler]
On May 20, the Pro-Life Action League coordinated more than 150 pro-life activists from across Iowa and the Midwest in protesting an appearance by Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards in Cedar Rapids. The event was billed as a 30th anniversary celebration for Planned Parenthood of East Central Iowa—and we were there to deliver the message that abortion is nothing to celebrate.
The protest was a tremendous success, with great turnout and fantastic media coverage. The entire event was a testament to what pro-life activists can accomplish with careful planning and a healthy dose of divine grace.
A “Welcoming Committee” for Cecile Richards
I first learned about Cecile Richards’ scheduled appearance—and the protest being planned by Dubuque County Right to Life—from a post by Jill Stanek on her pro-life blog. Given my history with Richards, I was eager to take part, so I reached out to my colleague Steve Brody, executive director of Dubuque Country Right to Life, who graciously accepted my offer to help “welcome” Richards to Iowa.
Over the next month, we worked together with board members of the Coalition for Life Iowa, based in Cedar Rapids, pro-life attorneys at the Thomas More Society and the League’s media experts at TC Public Relations to put together a solid protest plan with a clear message: “Abortion is nothing to celebrate.”
The protest was promoted through every available channel: postcards and letters, the League website, e-mails, phone calls and alerts on Facebook and Twitter. Jill Stanek continued to promote the event on her blog, and David Bereit of 40 Days for Life sent out an alert to more than 1,000 e-mail contacts in Iowa.
May 20, 2010, was shaping up to be an historic day of pro-life activism.
Aurora Team Hits the Road
At about 11:15 a.m. on May 20, I pulled out of my driveway in Aurora, Illinois with a van packed full of signs and gear—including copies of the protest “battle plan” I had meticulously drawn up, including maps and a detailed timeline. Little did I know much of my careful planning would have to be scrapped on the ground in Cedar Rapids.
With me for the trip were my assistant Matt Yonke, my sons Nate and Sam and daughters Liza and Clare, and stalwart Aurora activist Jerry Nickels. My parents Ann and Joe and staffer Corrina Gura drove separately from Chicago. We were all in for a day of high adventure.
Before I had even reached the highway, I received a call from an Iowa Public Radio reporter who wanted to be sure that we wouldn’t cancel the protest with rain in the forecast. I assured her that we would be there rain or shine, and made arrangements for an interview on site.
Planned Parenthood Plays the Violence Card
Moments later, I received a call from Stephanie Lewis at TC Public Relations about a story on KCRG-TV in which a Planned Parenthood executive was commenting on security measures for Richards’ appearance—including snow fences and FBI involvement. I was also quoted in the story saying that “abortion is nothing to celebrate.”
Eric Scheidler dictates a blog post to Matt Yonke (not pictured) en route to Cedar Rapids [Photo by Sam Scheidler]
Stephanie suggested that we respond by (1) asking pro-lifers to comment on the KCRG blog about how peaceful pro-lifers really are and (2) suggesting that Planned Parenthood send the extra security officers over to guard the baby supplies being collected at the rally, since they won’t be needed for our peaceful protest.
Matt and I loved the idea, and sprung into action. Driving down I-88, I dictated a blog post to Matt, who typed it into my laptop and posted it, and then followed up with alerts on Facebook and Twitter.
By the time we were finished with this sudden project, we were well into Iowa.
First Stop: Planned Parenthood Center in Cedar Rapids
We had planned to begin our time in Cedar Rapids with a Rosary at the Planned Parenthood center in town. But with time running short thanks to our divided attention during the drive, I decided to begin the Rosary while driving through the outskirts of town. Matt phoned Corrina, who was already at the center with some local activists, and we arrived to find both Rosaries being prayed in perfect sync.
After finishing the Luminous Mysteries together—which are prescribed on Thursdays and perfectly fit our mission to shed light on Planned Parenthood—the Aurora team drove off to place our first Warning sign, following my careful timeline.
Police and FBI Descend on Protest Preparations
We placed our first two Warning signs with such dispatch that we found ourselves a few minutes ahead of schedule by the time we pulled up to the Cedar Rapids Marriott, where Richards was speaking, to unload a stockpile of signs with my son Nate. He was to wait there during the rally several blocks away and begin deploying the signs as volunteers arrived.
Eric Scheidler’s detailed “battle plan” had to be revised on the fly due to police restrictions
We were going to need those extra minutes to readjust. After placing the third Warning sign down the block, we began dropping more signs off at another corner of the Marriott when several police vans descended on Nate’s position a block away. He called me to say the police were threatening to arrest him if he didn’t move his signs off the Marriott property.
Before I could advise Nate, a police van backed down the block to where I was and two officers got out. One of them came up to my window and said she was with the FBI. She said that all the surrounding businesses had “issued trespass warnings” and that the police would be observing a “zero tolerance” policy: anyone on private property would be warned once, then arrested.
I didn’t mention that this sounded more like a “one tolerance” policy, but said I didn’t think we’d have a problem with that and I’d disseminate the information. I was also ordered by a Lieutenant to stay off of Park Place Lane, which he said was a private road.
League Team Quickly Adjusts as Police Impede Protest Plans
This would be a significant hindrance to our plans. Not only had I been intending to line Park Place Lane with signs, but it was the artery connecting the north and south sides of the Marriott protest.
What’s more, the police had been apprised by letter a week in advance exactly where we intended to hold signs—ample time to inform us of any problems. I do not know why they chose to ignore that letter.
Eric Scheidler talks to police outside the Cedar Rapids Marriott [Photo by Sam Scheidler]
However, this was not the time to get into an argument with the police, who were behaving with unusual aggression. I assured them we were there to protest peacefully and would be able to work within their guidelines.
The rest of the team was unloading signs during this exchange, as the police could plainly see. Despite my cooperation, the moment I was finished talking to the officers, warning came over the loud speaker of one of the police vehicles that I must get off Park Place Lane immediately or get a citation. I managed to get the rest of the crew—minus Jerry, who was staying with the signs—back in the van before they followed through on this threat.
In my absence, Nate dealt expertly with the officers down at his end of the block, moving the signs a few feet to an acceptable location in the public right-of-way. Meanwhile, Matt and I drove off to place the final warning sign and quickly revised our plans for the protest to factor out the forbidden road.
Light Rain Begins as Pro-Lifers Gather for Rally in Park
KCRG News Channel 9 interviews League Executive Director Eric Scheidler [Photo by Matt Yonke]
With all the protest preparations complete, my remaining crew and I drove to Noelridge Park, a couple blocks west of the Marriott, for a pro-life rally and press conference in advance of the protest. Already in the parking lot was a Truth Truck sent by Operation Rescue‘s Troy Newman, being prepped for the protest by the O.R. crew.
A light rain began, which continued through the rally. Matt and I set up a small stage, with a view of the Marriott behind.
Soon a bus arrived from Dubuque and unloaded 50 activists carrying signs reading Planned Parenthood: BAD for Dubuque, which copied the design I created for Aurora. I was delighted to see these signs for the first time.
I met up with Steve Brody, who had come on the bus, and quickly briefed the protest team on the police directives and “zero tolerance” policy and how our plans would be changing. I then conducted an interview with KCRG-TV, Channel 9, the ABC affiliate, in which I called Planned Parenthood “Abortion, Incorporated”—a line which made it onto the evening news.
Rally Highlights Planned Parenthood’s Pernicious Influence
The rally began promptly at 4:30 p.m., with Bill Brennan of the Iowa Coalition for Life calling the crowd to attention and introducing me. I spoke about the evil that Planned Parenthood poses for our entire society, hiding behind euphemisms like “choice” and “power” and “reproductive rights” when all they’re really about it destroying families and killing unborn babies.
Sue Martinek of the Iowa Coalition for Life speaks at the rally [Photo by Matt Yonke]
Next, Steve Brody talked about the threat that Planned Parenthood poses for Iowans, especially through the new “Telemed” abortions, by which women can be dispensed an abortion pill after nothing more than a brief video consultation with a doctor. Sue Martinek of the Iowa Coalition for Life talked about the fight against Planned Parenthood in Cedar Rapids, including the collection of baby items going on during the rally, to be donated to local pregnancy centers.
With the national, state and local perspective established, the focus became personal, with a moving testimony by Jennifer Minney, Regional Coordinator of Silent No More Awareness, about her own painful experience with abortion—and the healing that she has received through God’s grace. The rally concluded with a prayer by Father Mark Osterhaus, Pastor of St. Matthew Catholic Church.
Group Splits for March to Protest Site
Thanks to our being banned from setting foot on Park Place Lane, we had no choice but to split the protest group in two, with half walking around the block to the protest site on the north side of the Marriott and the other half walking through the park to the south side of the hotel. This meant splitting the staff, too—which in turn compromised safety as Ann Scheidler, leading the north-side group, had to deal with an extremely short walk signal crossing the very busy Collins Road. Police did not help in any way.
As the two-pronged march got underway, I jumped in my van to drive around the protest site. I was pleased to see League staff—Nate with the north group, Matt with the south—quickly deploying signs as volunteers began to arrive. The protest was proceeding beautifully, despite all the disruption caused by the police and FBI.
While driving around the protest area, I discovered that one of our Warning signs had been placed face-down on the parkway. It clearly hadn’t blown down, because the sandbag had been put on top of it. I decided it would be best to take that sign down.
Pro-Lifers Undaunted by Steady Rain
Protesters hold signs through steady rain [Photo by Sam Scheidler]
I parked my van and made my way to the south side of the protest, along Collins Road, for an interview with Iowa Public Radio. I also did interviews with the local CBS and NBC television affiliates and the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Meanwhile, the light rain had turned heavy. One reporter remarked to me that it was a bad day for a protest. I declared with a smile that it was a “great day” to protest, because it shows what kind of commitment the pro-life movement has. The reported responded, “Wow, you’re pumped!”
I wasn’t the only one. The mood throughout the protest zone was upbeat, despite the chilly rain. All were grateful for the opportunity to be a part of such a powerful, effective pro-life protest.
The mood inside the Marriott was rather more subdued, as we learned later from a pro-lifer who had staked out the banquet room. She wasn’t able to get in for Richards’ talk, but found that attendance was low—only about 100 people, not the 200 Planned Parenthood told the press.
Back outside, response from passersby was markedly positive, with many thumbs-up, waves and God-bless-yous. One exception was a man who got out of his car and started yelling and swearing at my father about our graphic abortion signs. I directed my son Sam to start videotaping the man, which calmed him down quite a bit, as I had intended.
The man then started yelling at me about how he’d lost his baby son and didn’t need to see pictures like these. I told him how sorry I was about that, and pointed out how horrible it is—in light of his suffering—that people willingly have their babies aborted. He soon began apologizing for his behavior. I told him not to worry about it, and that I would pray for him.
Two Warning Signs Go Missing
About fifteen minutes before the conclusion of the protest at 6:15, I sent Matt off to collect the remaining Warning signs. But only one of them was still in place—two were missing.
Our plans for a big closing prayer had to be set aside because we had no way to reunite the north and south protest groups. However, my son Nate managed to gather everyone on the north side of the Marriott for a prayer led by Pastor Bill Holley of Eastview Christian Church.
Matt Yonke and Nate Scheidler place one of the two Warnings signs that were later missing [Photo by Sam Scheidler]
Once we had dismissed the crowd and loaded up all our signs, it was time to hunt down the missing Warning signs. Because both the signs and sandbags were missing, we were all but certain that they had not been stolen but rather confiscated by the authorities. But which authorities?
Calls to the police got us nowhere, so we decided to approach the police lieutenant I’d spoken to when we first arrived, still stationed near the entrance of the Marriott. When he saw me drive up in the van, he motioned for us to leave; “You’ve been warned,” he said. I rolled down the window and said, “I’m here to talk to you.” He told me to drive over to a parking lot next door.
He and the FBI officer met me over there, and I explained the situation. He got on his radio and found out that the Iowa Department of Transportation had taken the signs.
The regional D.O.T. headquarters was on our way out of town, so we stopped by there to look for the signs. An agent there looked for us, but couldn’t find them—he thought they were probably locked up for the night in one of the garages, and gave us a number to call. Matt later confirmed that they have the signs, and is making arrangements to get them back.
Outstanding Media Coverage Delivers Key Pro-Life Messages
An Iowa Public Radio correspondent interviews League Executive Director Eric Scheidler [Photo by Sam Scheidler]
Media coverage of the protest in Cedar Rapids was outstanding—a testament to what can be accomplished with a good media relations team to help craft a solid message and effectively connect with the press.
All of our key messages were hit: that “abortion is nothing to celebrate,” that pro-lifers are peaceful and eager to help women choose life for their unborn babies, and that Planned Parenthood is “Abortion, Incorporated.”
- Pro-Life Advocates Protest Planned Parenthood Event [VIDEO]—ABC Channel 9, KCRG-TV
- Planned Parenthood Celebration Draws Pro-Life Protesters [VIDEO]—CBS Channel 2, KGAN-TV
- Supporters and Protesters at Planned Parenthood Anniversary [VIDEO]—ABC Channel 9, KCRG-TV
- Protestors line up outside Planned Parenthood banquet [VIDEO]—NBC Channel 7, KWWL-TV
- Planned Parenthood President in Cedar Rapids [VIDEO]—ABC Channel 9, KCRG-TV
- Crowd gathers to protest Planned Parenthood event—The Gazette
- Abortion Protest [mp3]—Iowa Public Radio
- “Extraordinary security” in place for Planned Parenthood event with Cecile Richards tonight—JillStanek.com
- Protestors speak out in Cedar Rapids against electronic abortion process—Radio Iowa
- Planned Parenthood anniversary celebrated amid collision of national, local voices—The Iowa Independent
Scenes from the Cedar Rapids protest. Click for high res version, or view a Flickr slideshow